Choosing the colour of an Olympic medal is a luxury that comes to few top athletes. But when it comes to men's mountain biking, one man stands out from the rest. And Frenchman Julien Absalon wants nothing less than gold.
"If I don't win a medal it will be a major disappointment. Winning a medal would be good, but I'd like to be able to choose the colour," said Absalon.
As the Olympic champion from Athens in 2004, Absalon also comes into Saturday's two-hour race on the demanding Laoshan course as a four-time consecutive world champion. A slight hiccup disrupted his Olympic plans three months ago when he missed the chance to win a fifth straight world title. But since then, he has let his rivals know he won't be easy to shake on the demanding 4.5km loop, that will be raced for two hours, by winning the last two World Cup races.
For most of the 50-strong field, Absalon's reputation means he will be the man to beat. But the lure of the Olympic gold medal will leave the race wide open.
Belgian Roel Paulissen says the radically changed course has halved his chances of a medal, and could also prove too difficult for Switzerland's reigning world champion Christoph Sauser.
"Absalon stands out and Christoph is the world champion in cross-country but it's not really a course for him because he likes short, steep climbs. Behind them, 10 men can win a medal," said Paulissen.
After being deemed too easy by some of the top athletes who previewed the course last year, the International Cycling Union (UCI) went to work. In came some big rocks, and some steep drops were added. In brief, a more technically explosive course on which there is no room for rest was created.
"It's spectacular, explosive, and is very demanding," said Belgian Sven Nys, a multiple champion in the hybrid sport of cyclo-cross who believes getting used to Beijing's special climate could be key. "I have spent months in a climate chamber and I've been here for the last few weeks."
Absalon's reign as world champion came to an end when he failed to finish the race in which three Swiss riders - Sauser, Florian Vogel and Ralph Näf - swept the podium.
It was in Quebec, Canada that Sauser picked up an infection in his knee when he hit it against a rock. Despite walking out the doctor's office after getting his plaster cast off and armed with antibiotics only three weeks ago, the Swiss is raring to go.
"(Having good) legs are going to play a big role and then you can use tactics. I will try to attack and then attack again whenever I can," he said.
Spain's Jose Antonio Hermida is just as motivated, after finishing fourth in Sydney (2000) and winning silver in Athens four years later.
"We're here to win. I think it's time to aim for the top," he said, admitting the radical changes to the course will test everyone. "We were complaining last year that it wasn't hard enough, now we're in a situation where it might be too hard!"
Absalon could be further motivated by the chance to keep the men's mountain bike gold in French hands for the third straight Games, after Miguel Martinez's win in 2000.
The secret to success could be keeping his head on his shoulders early, and letting his legs do the talking later.
"You have to have a fast start to the race but you can't afford to blow up too early," he said. "If it's hot, there's going to be a few guys getting left behind."
© AFP 2008